EucXylo hosts its annual HMF research day!

Post authored by Dr Letitia Schoeman

This year, the Hans Merensky Research Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalypt Wood Formation, also known as EucXylo, hosted its annual Hans Merensky Foundation (HMF) Research Day on the 3rd of October 2022. The meeting was held as a semi-hybrid event to accommodate both in-person and online attendees. Those who were able to attend the event in-person gathered at STIAS (Figure 1) in Stellenbosch. Those who could not attend in-person, enjoyed the full program of the day through a virtual platform, namely Teams.

 Figure 1: The HMF Research Day took place at the beautiful STIAS in Stellenbosch.

The HMF Research Day was intended to showcase the amazing research conducted by the students and postdocs, and to celebrate the wide diversity of the EucXylo research program. The talks were designed to be broadly accessible and focused on the relevance of the research in the broader scientific context. The primary aim of the Research Day was to present the students’ and postdocs’ research to the Hans Merensky Board of Trustees, the broader forestry community, and EucXylo’s industry partners. The goal was also to facilitate professional development, promote interdisciplinary interactions, foster a vibrant and collaborative scientific community, and provide students with a unique networking opportunity.

The event commenced with a word of welcome and introduction by the Dean of the Faculty of AgriSciences, Prof. Danie Brink and the EucXylo research leader and holder of the Hans Merensky Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalypt Wood Formation, Prof. David Drew. Prof. Drew explained what we do at EucXylo and what we want to achieve (Figure 2). Research in the EucXylo program explores in detail the dynamics of wood formation (xylogenesis) in the extremely important group of genera known as the eucalypts, with the goal of developing mathematical and computational models of the system.

Figure 2: Prof. David Drew, research leader and holder of the Hans Merensky Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalypt Wood Formation, welcomed all the participants to the annual Hans Merensky Foundation Research Day.

Presentations covered the full gamut of research undertaken at EucXylo and showcased the emerging researchers and their various study areas. This was an excellent opportunity to appreciate the importance of postgraduate research and how it fits into the broader research objectives of the EucXylo program. At EucXylo, we intend to take a Systems Biology approach to xylogenesis, linked closely to the extraordinary power of Bioinformatics. That is, we endeavour to put together the pieces of the wood formation puzzle, harnessing modern computational and systems-level analyses to formulate and answer various relevant questions which emerge as our research progresses. We hope this integrative approach will close the loop between the relevant scales which are all inextricably linked: from the population level down to the level of the developing cell.

The event welcomed twelve presenters from the EucXylo team, focusing on different areas of xylogenesis and different research/modelling scales, ranging from the stand-level to the plant, organ, tissue, cell, and molecular level (Figure 3). The presentations spanned a variety of topics, which demonstrated the broad range of research conducted at EucXylo. Topics included responsiveness and adaptability of xylogenesis dynamics in Eucalyptus cladocalyx, a framework for integrating data flows and concepts in eco-physiological and xylogenesis models, radial variation in wood properties as effected by environmental factors and silvicultural regimes in Eucalyptus grandis, non-destructive and high-efficiency methods for quantitative imaging of developing xylem in eucalypts, and carbon allocation and biomass accumulation within eucalypt clones with contrasting water use strategies.

Figure 3: Students and postdocs presenting their research findings to the audience.

During the question-and-answer session at the end of each presentation, discussions were held where presenters were given the opportunity to answer questions from the audience. The discussion boards were alive with questions and deep exchanges on the research topics. The bustling of multidisciplinary scientific exchanges emphasized how integral postgraduate students are to the scientific community and highlighted again the value of EucXylo’s multi-scale approach.

The Research Day was attended in-person by Prof. Thomas Seifert, Trustee of the HMF Board, industry partners from SappiMondi Group and York Timbers, student supervisors from various institutions and staff from the Department of Forestry and Wood Science. The president and vice-president of the Hans Merensky FoundationDr. Khotso Mokhele and Mr. Chris Pienaar (Figure 4) and other Trustees of the Board and staff were present as online attendees.

Figure 4: Dr. Khotso Mokhele, president of the Hans Merensky Foundation, and Mr. Chris Pienaar, vice-president of the Hans Merensky Foundation, both attended the Research Day online. Industry partners from Sappi, Mondi Group and York Timbers were also among the attendees.

Dr. Hans Merensky was a very generous man who donated money to universities, schools, libraries, hospitals, charities, cultural organisations, and people in need. He was a pioneer in establishing agricultural schools in southern Africa and made it possible for the University of Stellenbosch to create a Forestry Faculty, which greatly boosted the large-scale forestry industry in the country. He gave much of his wealth to South Africa in the form of generous donations to universities and the establishment of bursaries for students. Today it is obvious that Dr. Merensky was not only a scientist of note, but also an extremely farsighted and thoughtful strategist, agricultural trendsetter, humanitarian, and philanthropist. In the words of Dr. Merensky: “This country has given to me so much, that I am only too happy to be allowed to help it to develop in some way, and I am grateful to be able to give back to it a fraction of what it has given to me.”

The event was a resounding success as the EucXylo team pulled off a spectacular HMF Research Day. It was a great opportunity to come together, identify common ideas and explore research collaborations. The high level of creativity, professionalism, and engagement that the participants displayed during this event was very pleasing! Sincere gratitude to everyone who contributed to making this event a tremendous success.

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